"I did come in like five minutes early last Friday, so this kind of evens out, right?"
You screwed up at work. That's OK: Some lady got the wrong latte, or a form was misfiled, or maybe you masturbated the wrong horse to completion. It's not a big deal. It's not like your little workplace faux pas is a major disaster. You didn't have an off day on the job and cause a financial collapse or commit a war crime or something. Not like these people ...
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It was a decade and a half after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the Ukraine just hadn't gotten around to decommissioning the 90,000 tons of missiles and shells leftover from the all-you-stockpile-buffet of the Cold War. The military gathered them all up in the town of Novobogdanivka, and the guards in charge of the weapons -- presumably to help deal with the stress of standing watch over so much impending doom -- chose to smoke away their shifts. But instead of taking breaks and trudging out to the sad smoking corner that every workplace has -- you know the one: Somebody threw a crusty Burger King wrapper in the ashtray, then everybody put their cigarettes out on it, and now the whole area smells like a wet dog that is somehow inexplicably also on fire -- the guards opted to smoke right there at the depot ... with 90,000 tons of explosives.
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We aren't talking about high-tech "won't detonate without priming charges or whatever" bombs. Somebody flicked an errant cigarette butt and damn near 60,000 tons of the depot's stockpile went up in a gigantic ball of flames. Bombs went off, rockets and shells shot in every direction, and shrapnel flew up to 25 miles away. At the disaster's peak, there was a new explosion every two seconds. Ever been yelled at by the HR lady because you stubbed out your cigarette on the ground, instead of in the can? These guards did basically the same thing -- and they caused $450 million worth of damages.
In June 2012, every single computer at the Royal Bank of Scotland just suddenly stopped working: ATMs were frozen, accounts disabled -- basically everything that makes it a bank instead of a prison for money was broken.
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No, this isn't a plot synopsis for Die Hard 6: Die Hardest (though do message us if you're interested in reading the treatment, Hollywood). Nor was it a robbery, or a terrorist attack, or anything even remotely sexy like that. The bank's processing software needed a routine update. RBS passed the supposedly simple job off to an inexperienced tech, and discovered that sometimes you get what you pay for. After making a regular, non-fatal error, the tech backed out of the update to try again. Then he made the truly fatal error of erasing everything. The entire scheduling queue for the RBS system was wiped clean, meaning that as far as the bank was concerned, money didn't exist anymore. Anyone not already prepared for Bartertown was in for a nasty surprise.
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Though the paralysis lasted only a few days, that's an eternity in financial time. RBS isn't some podunk community credit union -- it's one of the biggest banks on the planet, with trillions of dollars in assets and subsidiaries all over the world. And it all came crashing down because one naive tech-support guy didn't Google the steps first. Eventually everything returned to normal -- after RBS ate all of the countless overdraft fees incurred by their customers -- and everybody learned an important lesson: If you highlight the entire operating system and accidentally hit "delete," try not to hit "save" afterward.
At 11:24 a.m. on March 15, 1986, the Hotel New World in Singapore was a fully staffed hotel just going about its business. At 11:25 a.m. on March 15, 1986, it was a giant pile of rubble. It took less than one minute for a six-story tower to collapse like a meth-fueled Jenga game.
Investigators looking into the cause of this catastrophe were stumped. For months they searched and came up with nothing -- no bombs, no mistakes in the blueprints, no scorned Earthbenders furious that the hotel charged them $16 for a bag of M&Ms. Finally, the investigators examined the building's foundation and discovered that it basically wasn't there. Ever looked everywhere for your car keys, only to find them in your hand? Sometimes the obvious stuff is the hardest to spot.
There was technically a foundation, of course: The construction crews didn't just slap a building down in the middle of a swamp. But it didn't do any of the things a foundation is supposed to do. See, when designing a building's structure, two types of weight must be accounted for: the "live load" -- the people, furniture, machines, and other crap inside the building -- and the "dead load," also known as the goddamn building. Both are important, but if forced to choose between the two, you'd want to secure the dead load. One generally wants to support the weight of the building when one is constructing the thing whose sole job is to support the weight of the building.
But no, the builder straight-up forgot to add the dead weight into his calculations, meaning the Hotel New World wasn't built to support anything but the live load -- hopefully all of the guests would be Stay Puft Marshmallow Men with imaginary baggage.
What's even more amazing than this colossal Day 1, Step 1 fuck-up is the fact that the building was 15 years old. It should've collapsed under its own weight, but it survived for a decade and a half against all odds. It would make for a great inspirational children's book -- The Little Building That Could -- but it'd probably get pretty disturbing, drawing all those cute little frogs and foxes trapped in the rubble.
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Patrick Murphy was an American, and like all true Americans, the only color he liked more than red, white, or blue was green. He saw the rebel forces in Naco fighting the Mexican government during the Cristero War in the 1920s and decided they could use a little extra help. Or, more accurately, he decided they could probably pay him for his help. So he loaded up his crop duster with crude handmade bombs and offered his services to the cause. They hired him, since neither beggars nor rebels can be choosers, apparently. But Murphy wasn't flying a jet carrying precision missiles -- he was puttering about in a crop duster dropping bombs by hand. The gringo just had to lean out of a plane and let stuff go. How hard could that be?
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As long as he didn't get so plastered that he accidentally bombed Arizona, the rebels would be totally-
Shit. He got drunk and bombed Arizona, didn't he?
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Naco has an American side and a Mexican side, and Murphy screwed up so badly at his one job that he technically committed a war crime against his own country. You may be a fuck-up, but at least you've never messed up so colossally at Jamba Juice that you nearly started a war with Canada.
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Nobody died, and only one person was injured, so the U.S. military was content to disable Murphy's plane, then arrest him when he tried to reenter the country. He could've been charged with treason, or attempted murder, or at least public aerial drunkenness -- but no, by most accounts he served a bit of time and then went totally free. Damn, he must have been one seriously lovable scamp to get the "boys will be boys" treatment after bombing the wrong country.
In heist movies, the elite banks possess security so extreme that dashing criminals will attempt to foil it just for the challenge. The real-life Security Pacific National Bank in Los Angeles was not one of those banks.
In 1978, banks had things called "transfer codes," which were necessary to send money into or out of the bank. If you knew it, all you had to do was call up the bank, give the code, request a funds transfer, and laugh all the way to the ... well, anywhere but the bank, we guess. The code was absolutely vital. The code was immensely valuable. The code was the bank's most closely guarded secret. The code was written on a piece of paper and taped to the wall in the transfer room.
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Still, it's not like customers went into the transfer room -- only trusted employees were allowed there. Trusted employees ... and whatever random contractors you find in the classifieds, apparently. A computer repairman named Stanley Mark Rifkin was in the SPNB transfer room fixing some hardware when he realized that criminals are just people who really enjoy currency and are capable of taking it. He really enjoyed currency, and wouldn't you know it? Here he was, now capable of taking it.
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Rifkin memorized the code and hit the lobby, where he used a payphone to call the same transfer room he was just in, identified himself as Mike Hansen of the International Department, and requested over $10 million be transferred to an account at another bank. Rifkin wasn't just a work-a-day Joe who stole millions on impulse -- he did have an elaborate plan on how to launder that money that involved diamonds, Russia, and Swiss bank accounts. But that's all aftermath: The actual heist was no Ocean's Eleven-style intricate plot. Rifkin saw the piece of paper, memorized a number, walked maybe a hundred feet, made a phone call, and found himself $10 million richer. At the time, it was the largest bank heist in American history.
Ever written down a login on a Post-It note, then stuck it on your desk somewhere?
Yeah, don't do that anymore.
Zachary William Frey the First is currently a student at Greenwich High School, and you can read all his other crazy articles and (not) be his friend here.
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